Moving at the Speed of Mud: China's High-speed Rail in Indonesia is Way Behind

Moving at the Speed of Mud: China's High-speed Rail in Indonesia is Way Behind

Exporting high-speed rail technology is a key goal of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but their first project in Indonesia has been hit with delays.

By Chen Hung-chin (陳虹瑾)

This piece first appeared in Initium Media and is translated with permission of the publisher.

JAKARTA and BANDUNG, INDONESIA — With a Chinese-made cigarette between his lips, Wang Lei (王磊) puffs out a long burst of smoke, like clouds circling a mountain.

In June 2018, he flew to Indonesia to work on the country’s first high-speed rail project for the China Railway Corporation. Wang didn’t bring any food or snacks from his hometown, but he brought eight packs of Changhua, a famous Chinese cigarette brand. “I smoke half a pack of these a day. I’m not used to Indonesian cigarettes, their tobacco is different from ours.” 

This is the 50-year-old Wang’s first time working abroad. In the year 1990, China entered into a high-speed railway construction blitz and Wang never lacked for work again. China’s quest to build a cross-county high-speed rail network is unstoppable, and its army of construction workers have conquered it all: from the collapsible yellow earth of China’s plain regions, to the frozen soil and thin air of the Tibetan plateau. 

When Wang received a notice from the China Railway Corporation that he would be “going abroad” to complete a high-speed railway in Indonesia, he was overwhelmed with pride and ambition. This is a landmark project for China’s “Belt-and-Road Initiative.” The Jakarta-Bandung line will be the first high-speed rail line in Indonesia (and the first in South-east Asia). It’s also the first instance of China "exporting" its high-speed railway construction know how to another country. 

But it hasn’t been smooth-sailing for Wang and his workers, and they've encountered a problem all too familiar to construction projects in China — land expropriation. Negotiations with local land-owners has been slow, and project completion dates keep creeping up. 

Wang says there's supposed to be a tunnel where he's standing now, but there isn't even a shadow of one in front of him. “You want to build, but you find it’s just not possible. You want to dig a tunnel, but instead you tinker with the machines and wait,” says Wang. 

In 2015, China and Indonesia formed a joint-venture to build the 150 kilometre Jakarta-Bandung High-speed Railway. The train will run at 300 kilometers per hour, and cut the three hour commute between Jakarta and Bandung to just 40 minutes.  

The project was supposed to be completed by 2018, but Rini Soemarno, Indonesia’s Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, says they’ve only acquired 54 percent of the land they need to finish the railway line. That's pushed the completion date to October 2020 at the earliest. 


Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo had high hopes for the project. The government wanted it finished in time for the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. Widodo was furious over construction delays, and there were worries the project would hurt his re-election bid.  

Indonesian president Joko Widodo. Photo by the Kremlin.

China, on the other hand, sees the project as a triumph of Chinese soft power. In May 2018, Xinhua said this about the project

Chinese technicians work side by side with Indonesian workers; under the baking sun and below a stretch of mountains, construction is carried out at full speed, a picture of passionate work...It will speed up the formation of an economic corridor along the rail line, and benefit the Indonesian people."

But do the Indonesian people truly benefit? In October 2018, Initium Media travelled along the future Jakarta-Bandung route, and saw a number of scenes that capture the state of the project: roads blocked by dust piles and workers struggling with rebar. 

As we left the suburbs of Jakarta, we saw rice paddies and livestock, but no trace of a high-speed rail. When we arrive in Bandung, we come across Wang Lei’s construction site. 

Started in 2016, construction didn’t pick up until the second half of 2017. Wang says that if a project of this scale were in China, things would be different. “Indonesian land is private, and it’s a hassle to expropriate. In China, the land is state-owned and the government has the right to levy it. It’s a must for this kind of project to succeed.”

He repeats one line over and over during our interview: “Socialism is definitely better.” 

A Fuxing (CR400AF) train in China. The Jakarta-Bandung HSR line is expected to use the same model. Photo by N509FZ.

Wang could complete the project with 40 workers in two years in China, but here, he would need at least five years, and costs would continually increase in the interregnum.  

Getting raw materials isn’t convenient in Indonesia, but Wang likes the workers. They learn fast, even if they don’t have much practical experience. 

He doesn’t understand, however, why Indonesians don’t appreciate China’s “goodwill.” “The high-speed rail is definitely good for the people here, when it’s finished, Indonesians will be thankful, but they never believe us when we say the railway is a good thing. We tell them the train will run more than 300 kilometres an hour, but they don’t believe it. They always say, how could it possibly ever run that fast? Haha!” 

There’s an old saying in China that says “polished things are better”, but for Indonesia’s high-speed railway, Chinese workers have been grinding away for years with no return. Wang laughs then mutters when talking about his experience with land acquisition in Indonesia. “If they don't believe you at first, then all you can do is speak slowly until they understand, or get the project department to give them a translation.” As soon as he finishes his sentence, he says “boy, it sure is hard getting them to understand.” 

Chen Tianyi (陳添翼) is a colleague of Wang, and he shares the same views. Chen is working on Tunnel Six, near the future Bandung Station. At 4.44 kilometres, it’s the longest tunnel of the high speed rail line. Conditions at the site are poor, and there are many risks during construction. 

Unlike Wang, he’s a veteran of China’s overseas infrastructure projects. “I’ve worked for China Railways all over, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, and Tanzania to Albania. I worked on all those projects with my bare hands. But who’s ever waited this long to finish a project?” 

He’s been in Indonesia for three months, where his salary is similar to what it would be in China: 10,000 Chinese Yuan a month ($1,450 USD), with room and board included. He’s worked for as little as 7,000 to 8,000 Yuan a month ($1,000 to $1,150 USD) at a cement factory in Africa. 

I ask him how his old life in Africa compares to his new life in Indonesia. He says life was much more relaxed in Africa. “Indonesians are just too smart, they don’t want anything to do with you.” When asked to clarify what he means, Chen doesn’t give a positive answer. He says Indonesians don’t cooperate on land acquisition and that Chinese workers have to wait for the local government to coordinate with residents. 

The project department now estimates construction stretching far into 2019. “If the Indonesians don’t accept the money, then what else can we do? They must have already taken a lot of money from the government, and are happy to get more.” 

But is it simply money that Indonesian’s are worried about? 

Chen’s co-worker, Dodo Slay, is a 54 years old native of Bandung. He’s worked as a site manager for 35 years, and has supervised construction on everything from the massive Cirata Dam in West Java, to infrastructure projects in Malaysia and Dubai. In 2015, Slay returned to his hometown, and now supervises Indonesian workers at Tunnel Six, where he oversees employee attendance, materials coming in and out, and even what the chef prepares for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I'm happy because I have job opportunities and money, but at the same time, I’m unhappy that I’m so tired.” The Indonesian workers he manages are on duty more than eight hours a day, and get a one hour lunch break. They don’t get any rest days. 

There are ten tunnels planned for the high-speed railway and they all need to be dug with heavy machinery, and the workers need to be extremely careful during excavation. There’s high levels of physical and mental pressure on this job. 

Farmland and mountains in Purwakarta, a rural area between Jakarta and Bandung, and were much of the tunnel excavation for the new HSR is taking place. Photo by blue tooth 7.

“We don't get any vacation days because we have to complete the project by 2022,” says Slay. “...actually, the official deadline for the project is 2021.” 

As a manager, Slay gets a monthly income of 7 million rupiah ($553 USD), a high income for labourers. The minimum salary for workers in Bandung is 2.6 million rupiah ($182 USD). Slay’s son has also just started working construction on the high-speed rail; his salary is a mere 100,000 rupiah per day ($7 USD), a little higher than the minimum wage. 

We spoke to a Taiwanese businessman responsible for managing Indonesian labourers about costs. Each province sets their own minimum wage, with the average somewhere between 2.5 million to 3 million rupiah per month. “A meal of McDonald's is equal to their daily income. I feel sinful every time I eat there.” 

Slay wears two hats at the construction site. He manages the labourers, and also coordinates the land acquisition process at the Bandung tunnel sites. He negotiates a price anywhere between 2 million rupiah ($140 USD) to 200 million rupiah ($14,000 USD) for locals to relocate. About 80 households and rice fields have already been razed to build the railway. 

But getting locals to relocate isn’t easy. Slay deals with red tape at every step, which in turn slows down the construction process. 

“The residents need to get their settlement money before we can start work. But the problem is, the Chinese government made the loan to Indonesia in Chinese yuan. Of course, the residents need to be paid in Indonesian rupiah. Making things worse, is they all need to fill out a stack of documents to even get the compensation.” 

Months can pass before families get their money. At the moment, Slay and his unit have waited nine months for the process to finish. 

The Jakarta Post reports that an average of 6,800 parcels of privately-held land are affected by the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail project. Spanning eight cities, 29 districts and 95 villages in West Java, these land claims are divided between 5,580 entities, including families, state-owned enterprises, and private companies.

One of the many newly dug tunnels for the Jakarta-Bandung HSR. Photo by Jakarta Post.

The China Development Bank will release the $5.5 billion USD needed to complete the project on the condition that land acquisition is complete. According to a 2018 report by Yusuf Isa at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail project was but one of many projects pitched by the Indonesian government to the overseers of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. If problems with the railway continue to pile up, China will be more cautious about entertaining future proposals from Indonesia. 

Back at the construction site, Slay talks about the separate lives of the Indonesian and Chinese workers. There’s about sixty Indonesian labourers and fifteen Chinese engineers at Tunnel Six. Despite working together in close quarters, there is little daily conversation between them. If either group needs to communicate with the other, they don’t worry about finding a translator, or mustering up the courage to speak English. Slay pulls out his mobile phone, and brings up their indispensable communication tool — “Google Translate”. 

The site at Tunnel Six isn’t the only place that has resisted communal living between Chinese and Indonesians workers. 

We drive south from Tunnel Six to a second project site. We find the Chinese and Indonesian living areas are clearly divided in the camp, with separate dormitories, offices, kitchens and bathrooms. The Chinese living area, however, was gifted a basketball court. 

“Our project team has our own canteen. We Chinese are more humanized,” says a newly laid-off worker we meet on the site. He says their manager lets them eat foods from China, and that he dislikes the local fare. “We Chinese don’t dare eat the stuff they’re eating, what with all the flies buzzing around it. If this were China, the customers would have reported them to the health department.” 


For local families affected by the construction process, the relocation negotiations have been stressful.

Jrsmin, a woman who lives near Tunnel One on the outskirts of Jakarta, says project construction has forced her family to relocate. 

She received a notice in July 2017 that her house will be repossessed the following December. More than 30 of her neighbours received similar notices. She has little choice but to give up her home of 33 years. Working together with three of her neighbours, she negotiated with the government on behalf of all the residents in the area. 

The Walini tunnel (or “Tunnel One”) under construction in suburban Bandung. Photo by Aditsf56.

“My husband was very persistent, but some of our neighbours weren’t patient enough, so they accepted the government's conditions earlier than we had hoped,” says Jrsmin. In the end, her family only received one-third of the original value of the house and land. 

Disaster almost struck when Jrsmin’s family couldn’t find the original deed of the house, and nearly missed out on receiving any compensation. She ran back and forth between city offices in order to get the proper documents reissued. 

With their new home under construction, Jrsmin’s family rented for eight months. They bought land on a neighbouring plot, but because of its proximity to the high-speed rail, they paid a premium price for it. 

When we visited Jrsmin at her new home, sand and gravel pebbles were falling from the ceiling. With no money to continue to rent the house, they made due by moving into their new home with construction only half complete. 

“When we left our home, we were all in tears,” says Jrsmin. Many of her neighbours were poor, and couldn’t afford to rent or build nearby; they packed up all their belongings, and moved their families to new locations faraway. 

Not everyone is upset about the high-speed railway though. The Indonesian government has promised residents they would get a free ticket once the project is complete. But Jrsmin scoffs at the offer. “I wouldn’t ride on that train, even if you paid for my ticket.” 

As we draw our interview to a close, Jrsmin’s anxiety about the project settles, and she sits down on the ground to guide some of the young girls in her neighbourhood to read the Koran. "Allah brings me comfort and calm, and I don’t want to be so disheartened by this,” says Jrsmin. 

Her youngest child will go to college this year, and her husband suffers from severe pain in his head because of the recent move. She heard that others in neighbouring villages have passed away from overdue stress because of the conflict with the government, but isn’t clear on the details. 

Hanging on the wall in Jrsmin’s living room, is a picture of the Great Mosque of Mecca. She says she registered to perform the hajj in 2013, but because of the high-speed railway, she had to use her savings to buy a new house. 

“Allah give me strength, Allah give me strength,” she repeats. Money can be saved again, the house can even be demolished again, but she’ll still go to Mecca one day, no matter what. 


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